Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the latest instalment in The Terminator series follows on from where audiences last saw John Connor at the end of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines when the war with Skynet and the machines began. However, it also feels like a prequel, covering the back-story that leads to Connor’s decision to find and then send resistance fighter Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother, Sarah Connor, as depicted in the original 1984 Terminator film. The other key character in this fourth instalment is Marcus Wright. Wright is a character who was supposedly executed in 2003 but finds himself very much alive in 2018 and helping Reese to stay one step ahead of the homicidal machines.
Kyle Reese is played by Anton Yelchin (Chekov from Star Trek) who convincingly resembles a teenage version of Michael Biehn, who played Reese in the original film. Yelchin is terrific and one of the major flaws in Terminator Salvation is that Reese is marginalised during the second half of the film. On the other hand Christian Bale, who still seems to be in his gravely voiced Bruce Wayne mode, plays John Connor with little conviction. Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl as John Connor respectively in the second and third films were far more charismatic and interesting to watch. The parts of Terminator Salvation featuring John Connor feel like an afterthought and yet are allowed to take over the film towards the end. This brings a halt to the development of the story of Marcus Wright, engagingly played by Australian actor Sam Worthington (Rouge, Gettin’ Square), which is far more interesting.
Overall Terminator Salvation stays true enough to the preceding Terminator films and contains some very nice nods to the original two films in dialogue, music and various visuals. Some of these nods you see coming; others are terrific surprises. Directed by television executive producer and music video director McG, Terminator Salvation contains the degree of visual flamboyance that you would expect from the guy who directed the hyperkinetic Charlie’s Angels. Hardware lovers are going to love it and the various vehicles and robots look fantastic, containing a gritty authenticity to the way they look and move, which leaves the cartoonish creations in Transformers for dead. The cinematography favours the muted, washed out look that is popular in modern war combat films such as Black Hawk Down and the frequent special effects driven long shots are incredibly impressive, as is the remarkable sound design. The result is akin to playing a highly sophisticated, all-encompassing first person computer game as you really do feel thrust into many of the action sequences. The film later gets bogged down in unremarkable interior action sequences, but the earlier scenes combine a desert setting and a lot of vehicular carnage, which even suggests an ultra high-octane variation of the Mad Max aesthetic.
So why isn’t this film more enjoyable than it is? Partly because while it is so technically impressive on an objective level, it doesn’t ever engage with the audience on an emotional level. In The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day James Cameron maintained a constant level of excitement and sheer dread over the idea that our heroes were being pursued by an unstoppable killing machine that could not be destroyed. Terminator Salvation suffers from having too broad a scope and too many plot lines that drift in and out of the film. It lacks the drive of the original two films and it lacks an overall sense of cohesion. Like the third film, Terminator Salvation does not damage the integrity of the series but it is completely disposable entertainment.